'Let's talk story': A book review of 'The Golden Dagger'

Buddy Gomez — Cyberbuddy

Posted at Mar 06 2020 06:29 PM

“Let’s talk story” is Hawaiian patois for “mag kuwentohan tayo.” Let us have a chat, exchanging stories. And so we will.

The story is “The Golden Dagger.” The storyteller, Antonio G. Sempio.

Courtesy of DLSU website

Coming as I do from that celebrated Sampaloc-San Miguel ‘parochial school’ San Beda College (now a University) along Mendiola street in Manila’s University belt, I have always thought that La Salle and Ateneo (both our traditional basketball adversaries in the old National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA) were elitists. After all, children of the more well-off were sent there. The original “Inglisero,” (given to speaking English) they were! In San Beda, we were more from the upward, mobilizing, working-stiff families, although some did possess a modicum of wealth. But I digress.

And so, it came as a pleasant and welcome surprise to find De La Salle University (DLSU) engaging i publishing an English translation of vernacular Tagalog/Filipino literature. Such material were, then as perhaps now, the amusement menu for the reading hoi polloi more than those of the well-to-do. If memory serves me ably, the Liwayway magazine of yore referred to such as “nobelang tapos.” I guess that meant our local version of ‘easy read’ dime novels of the USA, even if most of those stories were serialized weekly. The novel I would like to talk about today, however, was published in book form in the very early 1930s.

The “De La Salle University’s Publishing House” made an exemplary choice by featuring the work of Antonio G. Sempio, (1891-1943). One of the country’s most prolific novelists, a fictionist in Tagalog. He enjoyed the reputation of having published the most number of novels in book form. Here are some of his titles: “Selia Makaraig,” “Anak Dalita,” “Dasalang Perlas,” “Bituing Naglaho,” and “Nayong Mangagawa.”

Although he was a lawyer by profession, he found prominence and his true calling as a Tagalog novelist. In his league were the likes of Lope K. Santos, Servando de los Angeles, Lazaro Francisco, Hermogenes Ilagan, and Amado V. Hernandez. These are names enrolled in the Filipino pantheon of writers in the vernacular who have been forgotten by time.

It is therefore commendable of once ‘elitist’ De La Salle to have undertaken the issuance of “Ang Punyal na Ginto” in English, as “The Golden Dagger.” A professor emeritus of the other ‘once elitist’ school, Ms. Soledad S. Reyes of Ateneo de Manila, did the translation. She translated other Tagalog novels and short stories with hopes of reaching a wider audience and popularizing themes common among local authors of the 1920s and 1930s. History has depicted the era as the milieu of burgeoning agrarian issues and social inequalities. That was known as the "American colonial period” about which critics were wont to point out as though the then government form and administration were the cause of social despondencies. This correspondent, on the other hand, does not subscribe to such contention.

Without wishing our conversation to be a spoiler alert, let me just run through briefly what “the Golden Dagger” was all about. First, the title is symbolism. The dagger (actually ‘punyal’ is Spanish. Mr. Policarpio Dangalio, my San Beda ‘balarila’ teacher, would have preferred to use the very Tagalog ‘balaraw,’ (Ang Gintong Balaraw). The dagger was author Sempio’s 'controlling symbol of how ‘the rich impacted the lives of the innocent poor.’

Although some critics make a seemingly inevitable reference to the pre-Commonwealth colonial period during which our story happened, my preference is to read the novel simply as human drama. Although a tear-jerker, it is possible to enjoy the story devoid of ‘nationalist’ overtones. Truly, as far as I am concerned, the ultimate cause of the protagonist’s travail was not American colonialism. Might I be excused, then, for advocating that the most formidable adversary of the Filipino is himself, under whatever time and clime?

Back to the storyline, the ‘rich’ is played out by hacienda-owning Don Sergio and the “innocent poor” is a barrio lass, Dalisay. Between the principal protagonists, there is the lover-boy weakling in Don Sergio’s son, Dante. The damsel conscious that she is the village’s comeliest, succumbs to the temptation that she deserves the attention of Dante. And so, she entertains and welcomes the attention and advances of Dante. A love child appears, deepening Don Sergio’s animosity towards the poor. Imperious father drives a wedge between lovers. A false story of bribery is thrown in by the author. Banishment, too. The story continues in a typically familiar fashion. Through stages of forbidden love, a ‘maze of conflicts,’ intimations of societal classes, deception, revenge, false recompense and ultimately, death.

There is an added bonus to our acquired knowledge about cinematography in the Philippine. “Punyal na Ginto” was also produced into a movie in 1933. In fact, Sempio’s novel became the very first Filipino-produced sound movie. The first “talkie,” as recognized by cinema lore. The coming of sound technology in the cinema business of the Philippines and the prominence enjoyed by Sempio’s novel at that time was an opportune confluence for the happening of this Filipino film landmark.

It was the “Father of Philippine Movies,” Jose Nepomuceno, who produced and directed in ‘talkie’ form the “Punyal na Ginto” under the banner of “Malayan Pictures Corporation.” The author Antonio G. Sempio also wrote the screenplay adaptation of his ’nobela.’ The film starred Carlos Padilla,Sr., Alma Bella, Naty Bernardo and Ramon Estella, who became a movie director of note in latter years. As incidental info, it is Jose Nepomuceno who produced and directed the first Filipino ‘silent’ movie in 1919. That film was “Dalagang Bukid” and in its title role was the celebrated Atang de la Rama.

Towards the end of Sempio’s story, the forlorn Dalisay is able to exact revenge upon Don Sergio, in a rather quaint web that most Filipino men are ensnared by. Sex! In the end, reality and tragedy.

Author Antonio G. Sempio may as well have called his novel “Ang Gintong Aral.” “Aral” meaning learning or knowledge, as he intended his story, a Filipino morality play, to be an object ‘moral lesson’ in depicting society, indeed a society not quite gone by!

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